Roman Krznaric, philosopher: “We have to change democracy to give future generations a voice”

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The philosopher Roman Krznaric.kate raworth

Breaking news. Immediate tweets. Urgent shipments: at your home in 10 minutes. I want it all now. The world has become frantic and we increasingly think in the short term, which prevents us from facing the serious challenges of the future with serenity. In this context, the philosopher Roman Krznaric (Sydney, 51 years old) has written the good ancestor (Captain Swing), an essay that aims to make us reflect on how the humans of the future will see us. “The interests of future generations are ignored. It is the tyranny of now. We need long-term thinking to face the next challenges, the next pandemic, social and racial injustices, the ecological emergency, ”he summarized this Thursday in a talk on-line in La Casa Encendida, before the one that attended EL PAÍS by phone.

Ask. In a short-term world, do we know how our ancestors have influenced us?

Response. We all know that we have ancestors, we know our parents and grandparents. We have a long term part within us. But we often forget the legacy of the past, like the cities we live in or medical discoveries. We have inherited many legacies from the past, such as economies addicted to fossil fuels and endless growth. If we want to think about the future we have to understand that past. But we are captive in the moment.

P. How can we be good ancestors?

R. That’s the big question. One option is simply to ask ourselves that question and let it become part of our thinking. This Saturday I am going to give a talk in Ireland before a citizen assembly for the loss of biodiversity, where a hundred citizens participate, who will then give recommendations to Parliament, and I will talk about it. These types of assemblies have proliferated in Europe. We have to change the nature of democracy to give future generations a voice. Citizens’ assemblies are kind of slow thinking. The risk is that governments ignore their recommendations.

P. What other things can be done?

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R. I believe in the importance of legal initiatives that are trying to give rights to future generations, and to mountains and rivers. They are a new approach. At the end of the 19th century, companies obtained the legal rights of people in the United States. It is time for the natural world to also have legal personality, as has just happened with the Mar Menor. That shows that change is possible. In Wales they have a commissioner for future generations. In Barcelona they have begun to apply the donut economics [desarrollada por su mujer, la economista británica Kate Raworth], a post-growth economic system to rethink how the city of the future should be. It is a model that aims to ensure that everyone has their basic needs guaranteed, while respecting ecological limits. One can also look to the Sagrada Familia to develop cathedral thinking, that is, in the long term: it is a building that began in 1882 and has not yet been completed. Or to him Court of the Waters of Valenciawhich has been meeting every week for hundreds of years to protect the water channels that irrigate Valencian agricultural land.

P. But most politicians think short term. How do we change that?

R. That is the great challenge, because representative democracy is a short-term game. I’m not utopian: I don’t think they’re suddenly going to think long term. We need mechanisms to promote citizen assemblies and the rights of future generations. And I think decentralization of power is one of the best ways to deal with this problem: one of the big changes in Europe has been to give more power to cities. Cities are very good at making long-term decisions, that’s why they survive. Istanbul has existed for the last 2,000 years and has survived several empires. Cities are good at building sewage or water systems for their citizens, which can last for centuries.

P. Human beings are living longer, but they are thinking more and more in the short term. What fault are the screens?

R. It’s easy to think that all our problems come from digital culture and looking at our mobile 110 times a day is the simple answer. But we have inherited a deep culture of short-termism developed over hundreds of years. Every time we cut time into smaller pieces: the first clocks of the fourteenth century marked every hour; in 1700 the minute hand was incorporated, in 1800 the second hand. And the stock market moves in nanoseconds. So time is going faster and faster and that means the future is disappearing. And we also have the short-termism of neoliberal speculative capitalism, which has no vision of the future or its impact on the population of the planet, and that of politics. All these factors feed the tyranny of now.

P. We have lived thousands of years without cars or planes, why do we no longer imagine the future without them?

R. The domination of the city by cars only takes 100 years. But people have no memories of anything else. The car is a kind of weapon. We think that freedom is driving or flying wherever we want, but not the freedom that matters. In 18th century Europe, people thought they were free to keep slaves, and now we know that’s wrong. It is similar with cars and airplanes: we think it is our right, but the exercise of that right has detrimental impacts on other people. It causes damage and that is what we have to get into our heads. Freedom is not driving a gasoline car or flying all you want.

A traffic jam between José Abascal streets and Paseo de la Castellana, in Madrid.
A traffic jam between José Abascal streets and Paseo de la Castellana, in Madrid. Victor Sainz

P. In the era with more scientific knowledge is when we are destroying the planet the most. How do you explain that paradox?

R. Scientific and technical knowledge can be liberating, but it has always been dangerous. With the first nuclear test in 1945 we developed the ability to destroy the future. The problem is that with this knowledge we are colonizing the future with new risks: artificial intelligence, biotechnology, nanotechnology… We think of a technological utopia that will solve all our problems, but it is better to trust in social technology: the invention of unions in the XIX it is social technology that has helped secure workers’ rights. We need new ways of organizing ourselves to deal with ecological challenges. Politicians will not save us: it will be the direct action of movements like Extinction Rebellion either Fridays for Future those who will pressure the political system to open it up from below. This is what happened with the civil rights movement in the US or with the anti-colonial movement in India.

P. Climate change requires changing our lives, but there are people who do not want to do it. How do we convince them?

R. There are many people who do not want to pay more taxes for future generations because they are worried about their current problems. But if you give them a space where they can talk about future generations, they look at the world in a different way. In Japan they have a movement called Future Design in which they invite neighbors to talk about the plans for their city: some have to think like citizens of today and others put on a kimono and have to think like inhabitants of 2060. And it turns out that the Those who wear these clothes think of more ambitious transformation plans regarding climate change or even paying more taxes. To those who do not want to do anything against climate change, we must say: think for a moment when your daughter is 90 years old. What world is she going to live in? What can you do for her? People react well to these questions, you just have to find the space to ask them.

P. How will those generations judge us?

R. They will say that we were criminals. My children are already judging me. In the nineties I flew a lot to Guatemala and Mexico for research on indigenous people, and they ask me: “How could you fly so much? The first Earth Summit was in 1992 [en Río de Janeiro]”. And I answer that it was not part of our world view then. It has taken us years to understand climate change. That’s why Greta Thumberg and thousands of young people are really angry. And they are right.

P. And how will current climate activists be viewed in the future?

R. In my children’s school there are historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King or the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. All of them broke the laws, they were disruptors of the system. At the same time, governments say climate activists blocking traffic are breaking the law and are eco-terrorists. These activists will be seen in the future as responsible citizens and politicians as irresponsible.

P. Just as we now see those who fought against slavery…

R. Yes. The anti-slavery movement in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries arose as a rebellion that tried to bring down the system. We need something similar today. I recently went to a conference by a Shell oil executive who explained that climate change is a problem, but that we have to keep burning fossil fuels to get money to invest in renewables. It would be as if 200 years ago the slave owners said: “Well, slavery is wrong, but we cannot change very quickly, we will have to do it in a few decades”.

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